The Far Field
Moving forward by looking backward
If retro revivalism has taught us anything, it's that aping past decades can be a slippery slope; leading to a state where conjuring a sense of nostalgia is the primary goal. Often, pastiche goes down well enough with the mainstream crowd (just look at Netflix's Stranger Things), but it rarely translates into something beyond its influences. In terms of our musical moment, rock and pop bands have been rummaging through the debris of 70s and 80s fallout for inspiration because, let's face it, hip-hop artists are the new rock stars. A surge of glossy synth-pop has made its way back into popular music over the past decade, and with it, plenty of generic basslines, soft drum machines, and washed-out vocals. Baltimore-based Future Islands are a band that fit into this mold, but there's a difference, and his name is Samuel T. Herring.
As the frontman for a group that's been toiling in relative obscurity for the better part of a decade themselves, an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in 2014 which inexplicably went viral marked the beginning of a strange phenomenon for a guy who seemingly just wanted to dance awkwardly, beat his chest, and howl into the night. This is not to disparage the work of fellow band members William Cashion (bass/guitar), Gerrit Welmers (keyboard) and Michael Lowry (drums), all competent musicians in their own right, but it was Herring's undeniably bizarre and yet riveting stage presence which captivated audiences. What followed was a surprising instance in which retro nostalgia butted heads with something operating by its own rules; exemplified by a bona fide synth-pop hit, "Seasons (Waiting on You)" which managed to overcome its derivative sound mainly by the sheer operatic power of Herring's vocal range. Oh, and yes, the sad Dad dancing helped.
Lyrically, Herring has always been interested in kineticism; in this idea of forward momentum at the expense of domesticity or even happiness. The love-sick ballads strewn throughout 2014's Singles revealed a man shaken by bitter breakups, but still hopeful. On The Far Field, he sounds positively defeated, with tales of failed relationships marked by a steady stream of bass-driven grooves and retro synths. In terms of sound, Future Islands have always looked backwards, which gives the lyrical preoccupations an irony which Herring seems genuinely in on, even as he often trips over flowery metaphors and simplistic sentiments.
If Singles was a coming out party for a band who have been subtly refining their sound for years, The Far Field is a slight tweak to a now standard formula which, despite the uniqueness of Herring's voice, has become somewhat repetitive. The songs here are subtler, gentler, and more refined in terms of production, but lack the dramatic spark and raw energy of similarly-sounding tunes from Singles. The closest the band comes to a "Seasons (Waiting On You)" type hit is probably lead single "Ran", with interwoven melodic lines blowing out into a declarative chorus, backed by a steady beat and airy keyboard washes. However, the album highlight is undoubtedly "Shadow", which pairs Herring's deep croon with Blondie's Debbie Harry raspy voice; culminating in a magical duet which takes the band's sound into more adventurous territory. Too bad the majority of the record remains planted firmly in the "what works" realm rather than snaking off in more unexpected directions.
If retro revivalism is sputtering, no one has bothered to tell Future Islands, and beyond that, Samuel T. Herring shows no signs of slowing down. As impassioned as he sounds throughout The Far Field, the notion of forward momentum at all costs is beginning to show its age. No one, not even a man with a throaty growl and untamed heart, can keep running forever. Eventually, life catches up, and with it, all those predictable basslines and familiar synths.